MLS Combine: An interview with Lancaster’s own Zarek Valentin

Posted on 04 January 2011 by Breton Bonnette

Zarek Valentin leaves the Akron Zips as a 19-year old NCAA Champion with boundless potential and a  near future, at least, that lies in Major League Soccer. The Lancaster, PA native has left quite the footprint in only two seasons, one  that has been duplicated on the international level with Thomas Rongen’s U-20s as well. A  local product projected to be a top 5 pick in this year’s SuperDraft and a starter of every game as a Zip, regardless of where he ends up in Major League Soccer, he looks set to do well. And if his rookie year is not with the Union, there will still be fans in and around Philadelphia wishing nothing but the best for his professional career. Valentin, however, is one of two potential first rounders that are local products. Both Zarek and Penn State’s Corey Hertzog (a Reading native) could very well be on Coach Nowak’s shortlist heading into the SuperDraft. A defender known for his composure and proper distribution out of the back, at only 19 and on big stages, could be the best pick to make. Only time will tell but wherever Valentin ends up, he’ll be one Philly area prospect to keep an eye on.

Less than a month removed from helping Akron to its first NCAA Men’s Soccer championship, ASN Philly got the chance to chat with Valentin before his versatility and talent is on display in Florida for this weekend’s 2011 MLS Combine. 

ASN Note: This interview was done before Major League Soccer announced that Zarek Valentin alongside Zac MacMath, Omar Salgado, and Perry Kitchen will not be attending the Combine. US Under-20 camp duty instead.

How satisfying was it to win the College Cup, especially after losing on PKs last season to Virginia? Was that the primary goal after last year ’s loss in the Final even after losing teammates like Teal, Ben, and Blair?

“It was especially difficult to lose in PK’s and then come back the next year with a huge target on our back. But, with that in mind, it was especially gratifying to win it all and bring it back home. I can’t put it into words what it meant to our team to overcome the disappointment of last year and then losing such great players. It was an incredible feeling to win the first National Championship, ever, for Akron. I’m still smiling as we speak!”

Can you tell us about your soccer upbringing? As a kid growing up in Lancaster and attending Mannheim Township, what and who were your big soccer influences?

“Soccer was big in my family and having my brother, Julian, lead the way with two youth World Cup appearances and a pro career really helped. Having him as an influence and to be able to talk to him, about anything and everything I will be facing…both on and off the field, is a major advantage I have and I communicate with him just about everyday. As for Lancaster, I was fortunate to have great coaches to help me while I was there. They all helped mold me, in different ways, to make me the player I am today. Mannheim Township is a big soccer area so the environment was conducive to playing soccer at various levels.”

How instrumental has your brother been in preparing you for making the transition to the professional ranks? Any sibling rivalry involve d in your quest for your eventual College Cup win a couple weeks ago?

“Julian has helped with preparation and mostly just reminding me to be myself and that it’s just another game. I looked at the big picture and he reminded me I’ve been there before and to just let it not get to me. As for the rivalry, there hasn’t been any but he did send me a picture of his National Championship ring, earlier in the year, and said, “It’s time to get yours!” I put it as the background on my phone and the rest is history. We did talk about how, if my championship team played his, it would be quite the game!”

ASN Note: Zarek’s brother Julian played for Wake Forest from 2004-2007, winning an NCAA title in 2007 before being drafted by the Los Angeles Galaxy. He now plays for FC Tampa Bay of the NASL. Funny side note – Julian’s Deamon Deacons lost in the College Cup in 2006 only to do just what Zarek’s Zips did. Come back and win it the next year. 

It seems like the whole Akron squad is set to turn pro in 2011. It ’s a broad question, I know, but what is the secret to Akron’s success over the past several years?

“I think it’s just the way we are prepared at Akron. Coach [Caleb] Porter and the entire staff has done an amazing job with the environment before, during, and after the games. They have prepared us “in” a pro-like environment on a daily basis. We also play a great style of soccer which also prepares us for the high level we hope to be apart of in the future.”

What has been the most important thing Coach Porter has taught you, especially as you get ready to turn professional?

“As much as we look at things on the field as well as parts of my game, Coach Porter has really helped me mature as a player off the field. When I started college, I was, in a way, immature with how I prepared myself as a player, but now I’ve matured greatly by getting good sleep on a daily basis, eating well, hydrating myself, treating little knocks right away and just taking a more ‘pro’ approach to everything.”

What are your expectations for the Combine? With a Generation Adidas contract in tow, you are virtually guaranteed a spot in the draft. Does that change your approach to the Combine at all?

“I expect the Combine to be very competitive and a little bit hectic at times because most players aren’t used to each other and the varied styles but I still expect a high level. Most players want to impress but I’m just going to try and focus on my game and as my brother would say, ‘It’s just another game.’ That’s the approach I’m going to take and, hopefully, fare well in front of all the coaches.”

Did you have any thought of going overseas to try and secure a contract or were your sights always set on starting your pro career in Major League Soccer?

“Most players look ahead to playing in Europe but, at this point in my career, I believe it is best for me best for me to start off in the MLS, get my feet wet and, hopefully, refine my skills and continue to really grow as a player. I’m excited for the Draft and where I may end up. I have no clue so I can only hope for a good situation and to make a good case to get playing time this coming year.”

You are truly a veteran at the U-20 level and it’ s safe to say you should be representing them in this year ’s CONCACAF qualification campaign and hopefully the U-20 World Cup in Colombia. Assuming that qualification is first and foremost the goal, what are the expectations heading into Colombia?

“We have a really good squad down here right now and the competition is high every single day. I think that will ultimately lead us to success. My last official tournament with this team was the Milk Cup where we took home the Championship. We had a very good team and we are continuing to add quality players. I think we have a good shot to do well and, hopefully, make a great run. I watched my brother do very well in Canada and fall short against Austria, but I hope to emulate that success and even be a part of something even more special with the 20’s.”

Be your own scout. As a player, what are your strengths and weaknesses?

“Of course, as a player, we look at our weaknesses and where we need to improve, more than our positives, so I’d start off by working on all defensive categories. You can never be too good in the air or 1v1, so I would start off by working on all my defensive categories. Coach Porter would call it the “functional” stuff. I also need to continue to find passes into my forwards’ feet and to players higher up the field. I believe that some of my strengths are that I communicate well on the attack and defense. Playing center mid, my entire life, has also allowed me to be calm on the ball (in the back) which helps with my passes and decisions.”

A bit off-topic but have you been able to catch a Union game at all? What did you think of their Expansion season?

“Sadly, I haven’t been to a game. I have two good friends in Amobi [Okugo] and Jack [McInerney] on the team and have heard great things from them and friends but haven’t yet been to a game. I think it was a good start for them and hopefully those guys and their team can continue to improve next year.”

Valentin (L) celebrating with Akron GK David Meves after winning the school's first NCAA title

Quick Hits

Who is the toughest player you’ve ever had to mark?

“I’m going to have to give props to my Akron boys and say Steve Zakuani. He came back to play in a scrimmage. It was Steve-O and Teal up top, Ampai and Darlington [Nagbe] in the midfield, with Blair and Ben Zemanski behind them. It was quite the inter-squad game but it is forever one of my favorites.”

Who is the best in the world in your position right now? And why?

“I don’t know if people consider me a right back or center back right now, so I’ll pick one of my favorites outside backs and that’s Ashley Cole. They [Chelsea] have been slipping as of lately but Ashley has been absolutely amazing on the defensive end while also creating attacks.”

Favorite club team?

“Fulham FC. I follow them so much after all the American players have once played there. Hopefully, one day, I can play at Craven Cottage.”

Positives and negatives of Akron, Ohio?

“Positives include a tight group of people living on and around campus and who is not a commuter. The campus is also quite small but still nice. I also love our soccer community that is out there, day in and day out, in the snow or any weather. The only negative I can think of is just the really cold temperatures that come and go and they seemingly endless gray skies. It gets freezing at times.”

Who are the Zips returning next year that we should be watching out for?

“I think all the returning starters have a great chance to really show well next year and become future professionals but one player, a little bit under the radar, is Ben Speas. He subbed on to a lot of games and provided a great spark. I think he will be a great addition to the starting line up next season.”

If one goes to Lancaster, what’s the first thing they should do?

“I think they should visit Tanger Outlets. There are a bunch of great stores as well as it is in the center of Amish Country. You can smell the farms from Banana Republic which is something most can’t say…haha!”

Last but not least, who goes number one in this year’s SuperDraft?

“I really think it’s up in the air between two of my teammates in Darlington [Nagbe] and Perry [Kitchen], they are both tremendous players and I think any team to add both players will get a very good player and person.”

Thank you for taking the time, Zarek, and good luck in the coming weeks!

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  1. The Philly Soccer Page » Adu? Mintal? More news. Says:

    […] more on Valentin, take a look at this interview. He’s good friends with Amobi Okugo and Jack […]

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